Whitney Houston: Clive Davis Opens Up First Time He Heard Icon Sing and How Her Biopic Shares Truth About Her Life

Clive Davis doesn’t hide the fact that discovering Whitney Houston is one of his greatest career achievements. He carefully crafted her global and crossover sound and image, helping to make her a national treasure. Their friendship would last a lifetime, but Davis will always remember the day he first heard the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” singer’s voice. He says the moment is unforgettable.

Clive Davis and Whitney Houston smile and mingle with others at industry event; Davis remembers the first time he heard Houston sing
Clive Davis and Whitney Houston | Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Clive Davis first heard Whitney Houston sing in 1983

Houston grew up singing at her local church under her mother Cissy’s tutelage. Cissy was a gospel legend and background vocalist who’d performed for the likes of Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin. Upon learning that her daughter wanted to pursue singing as a profession, she guided her steps each way.

Source: YouTube

As Houston aged, she began singing alongside her mother at local showcases. Davis attended one of them. In an interview with CNN, the music executive spoke of the first time he witnesses Houston’s gift, saying:

I knew immediately [that she was special]. I was seeing her at a club called Sweetwaters. Her mother was the star of the show. She was a background singer doing two shows in the middle of her mother’s act. And she stepped to the microphone. Her choice of material – and she sang two songs – one was “Home” from the Broadway show The Wiz. And the other was “The Greatest Love of All,” it was a song I had commissioned for the wife of Muhammad Ali. I had the original record with George Benson. [I] absolutely [remember]. Of course you do. It’s a lifetime memory. I was amazed that she found more meaning in that song than I believe than Michael Masser and Linda Creed when they wrote it. This was a unique vocalist who was breathing fire and soul, and heart into a song I was so familiar with. I had commissioned it years ago. And I knew that her gift was unique without question.

He convinced Whitney Houston to sign a record contract with him via an unprecedented clause

At the time of meeting Houston, she was being scouted by both Epik and Elektra Records. Davis was the head of Arista Records and knew that in order to sign her, he had to make a move immediately. 

Source: YouTube
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He explains in a forward of Houston’s 35th anniversary of her debut album that Houston signing with him came down to a specific clause in her contract. “Whitney would only sign with us if she was given a key man clause that stated she would only work with me: if I were to leave the company for any reason, she could leave as well,” he wrote. “At that time, Arista was part of RCA Records. We had never given that clause to any artist (and never would again), but in view of my passion, the RCA board approved it…and our lifetime musical adventure began.”

They remained close until she died in 2012. Davis was the godmother to Houston’s only child, Bobbi Kristina Brown. She died in 2015.

The record executive is an EP on Whitney Houston’s forthcoming biopic

Houston’s first authorized biopic from her estate with be released in theaters in Dec. 2022. Davis has been critical of other projects centering on Houston, but is proud of the biopic he’s part of.

“They’ve only – depending on their prejudice – it’s been the downfall. We’re going to cover it,” he said of the storyline, per Yahoo News. “I look forward to a great film that’s multidimensional, that is a celebration of an incredible artist and her music, but that tells the realistic story about struggles or aspirations or hopes.”